Upon reading Pedal and throughout our thread by thread interview, I began to feel closer to Chelsea Rooney as an artist. When we finally did meet in person at Room’s 40th anniversary anthology launch in March, I was tempted to blurt this fact out loud but thought against it in order to not appear too swoon-ish. Though, I suppose she knows now.
Rooney is a host for The Storytelling Show on Vancouver Co-op Radio. Her first novel, Pedal, was published by Caitlin Press in 2014. Pedal was nominated for the 2015 ReLit Award for Best Independent Fiction, and was a finalist for the 2015 Amazon.ca First Novel Award, co-presented with The Walrus. In her review for The Globe and Mail, Stacey May Fowles described Pedal as “A debut novel sure to spark debate . . . Beyond anything, the novel wisely asserts that sexual abuse and trauma are not problems as simplistic and easily solved as we want them to be. Until we are able to have the hard conversations about their complexity we will be no closer to preventing their pervasiveness.”
In the following interview, Rooney discusses some of the inspirations for her work, the need for complexity in conversations about trauma, and how fiction can set us free.
ROOM: What drew you to the craft of writing?
CR: I have written stories since I was a child, five or six years old. My father read to me every night during the first few years of my life. Early teachers praised my skills and gave me opportunities to showcase my writing. I loved reading more than I loved doing anything else, and always experienced writing as the imprint of reading, or as a giving back to the authors from whom I’d taken.
ROOM: Was Pedal a story you knew you were going to tell or did it grow within you throughout your exploration of writing?
CR: I didn’t know I was going to tell Pedal until it appeared one day in my head and out onto the page. I’ve never heard the same story told twice about how an author arrives at their novel, poem, or screenplay. Showing up to the laptop or notebook day after day seems to be the only common denominator in how we craft stories.
ROOM: How much of a role did the old adage “write what you know” come into play while you were writing Pedal?
CR: Before Pedal was published, my thesis advisor Keith Maillard told me to withhold the fact that some of the experiences in it—namely, the kind of molestation experienced by Julia the protagonist—were autobiographical. Naively, I thought: Why would I withhold this fact? I write to find truth, and the truth is, these are my experiences. Doesn’t the truth set us free?
No, it does not. Everyone’s truth is different, and so the truth actually ends up dividing us and setting us against one another. It’s fiction that sets us free. In an attempt to learn something new, I write what I don’t understand.
ROOM: I love that you refer to fiction as setting us free. I agree completely. When writing what you don’t understand, how do you approach such a concept?
CR: I put characters with singular questions—like: What is abuse? How do we talk about it?—into situations I’ve never personally been in before. In Pedal, a psychology grad student cycles across Canada with a non-offending pedophile. Plotting a timeline hasn’t worked for me. I follow the thing I know nothing about, and so keep learning new things, but the questions I have stay the same: What is abuse? How do we talk about it?
ROOM: In following the thing you know nothing about, you mention that this shifts and meanders things as you encounter them, does this in turn affect the path that you have initially set your character on? Have you found that the narrative has taken a drastic shift from what you expected?
CR: Yes, absolutely! I never know how a story will unfold. The answers to your questions change depending on whom you ask. From a family to a pedestrian to a teacher to a colleague, abuse is carried out differently. But the one thing I count on is that humans abuse. We always have. No denying that.
To know what abuse is and how we talk about it at different intersections, I have to look at my own. How have I abused others? How have I been abused? It’s easy for me to see the harm caused to me by abuse, but harder to see the harm I have caused others. There’s also the fear that, if I look for this harm and find it, then I’ll finally be punished for it. These questions are real fears. It’s why we deny abuse. But the best stories delve deep into the impacts of our actions, abusive or not. So that’s where I go in my writing.
ROOM: Absolutely. In Pedal, we see the impact of events and abuse form into complicated relationships, thoughts and feelings for all of the characters within Pedal. However, I found that you merely touched upon these elements and allowed the reader to fold into the story and find out for themselves. You don’t reveal the whole picture but rather lift the veil. Was that an intentional element to your story?
CR: Elena Ferrante said, “We betray our stories out of laziness, out of acquiescence, out of convenience, out of fear.” Laziness to investigate more complicated truths, acquiescence in bending to social pressure to tell acceptable stories, convenience—the path already beaten down for us! And fear of rejection: If I tell this story, will I be banished from society? Will I die? The only emotion I’m ever one hundred percent certain of when I’m writing is anger. Ferrante writes such precise and subdued anger. Her protagonist isn’t angry about the things you’d think she’d be angry about. Anger, on its own, tells us nothing. Only that something else is there. It’s a metal detector for what lies beneath, the thing that we’re trying to figure out, the reason we write, the reason we tell stories.
ROOM: Amazing. So what would you tell someone who is worried by these notions of rejection, disgrace or being banished through the exploration of their craft?
CR: At several times throughout a day the question, “How should a person be?” comes to mind. Sheila Heti’s 2012 novel is a memorable book for me because of how closely it looks at this question. How should a person be a friend? How should a person be an artist? How should a person write?
I was going to say that as writers we shouldn’t cling to “right” or “wrong” but of course we do. We all write with moral compasses. And all moral compasses have been up always for debate. I aim to be kind in both life and in fiction, giving my characters opportunity to fuck up, be human, feel pain, cause harm, see themselves, be forgiven. But they have to see themselves to be forgiven; they have to witness their own abuse. If you can’t admit how you’ve hurt someone, it’s difficult to move in any direction. That’s why stories often hinge on dishonesty, or where one person’s truth stops matching someone else’s.
ROOM: It’s interesting that you say, “Dishonesty is where the story is,” in many ways it really is how fiction is created. That being said, Pedal has many truths within it underneath the dishonesty of the characters and their motives. Do you think truth can ever dictate a story as well as dishonesty? In your second novel, will truth dictate the narrative?
CR: Truth is a weird one. I’ve been called a liar so many times in the past year and a half that I now have a hard time understanding how we determine overreaction or straight-up lies. It seems that unless something is caught on film, a fact of violence or harassment can be disputed or held up as dishonest. I used to think that I could show people the truth by giving them information. I no longer think that.
There’s a visual artist, Alberto Giacometti, who made these long, weird sculptures of exaggerated human forms and when I saw one in real life (at MOCA in 2013) I felt this instant sad familiarity in my belly. The tall skinny bronze object, stretched thin and cracking, looked nothing like a real human and yet somehow felt more real. Giacometti said, “The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.” The goal of presenting truth is to move people with it. But it seems we have to show people something they already inherently understand to get them to see a truth. I don’t know if this answers your question.
ROOM: Absolutely, it does. As we see a world emerging that has the potential to blur the line between reality and truth perhaps this is where again the artist will have to step up and through their creative medium to display reality as it is. Truth and all. As an artist creating in this landscape, have you found that what is happening in the political and global arena is altering the draft of your second novel?
CR: Various happenings in the political and global arena have made my second novel seem redundant! Which is something I’ve heard from a few people . . . Again, I thought the line for Trump would be the “grab their pussies” comment. I don’t know why I thought that. If you needed a reason not to vote for Trump after racism, bigotry, tax fraud, then why would it be sexual assault? Finishing my novel seems less important now than listening and learning about where violence is accepted and where it isn’t and why.
ROOM: In Pedal, Julia often has to justify either to herself or those around her the reasons behind her researching sexual abuse survivors and also her decision to change the direction of the abuse element of the events experienced by these survivors. Did you experience any of this same pushback when writing Pedal?
CR: Not from external sources, no. I kept my writing very private, sharing my drafts only with a best friend and my thesis advisor; both were supportive. The pushback I experienced was from within: Can I write about someone who isn’t sure that sexual touching between adults and children is inherently immoral or abusive? I didn’t know if I could do it. I still don’t know if I can. That frisson, that continuous tipping over, I think that’s art.
ROOM: In Julia’s decision to look at her cases not from an abuse standpoint but rather from a direction of survivalism or learning, do you think she is truly trying to change the stigma around these events or is she simply trying to justify what happened to her?
CR: Great, great, great question. Is Julia actually trying to eliminate stigma or is she just trying to justify what happened to her? Because it cannot be both at once. You’re right, Nav, these options are in opposition. Julia is trying to change the rules. She’s a rule breaker on the verge of learning that rule breaking can be its own form of abuse. Maybe she gets there on the last page of Pedal. Maybe not. But I have hope for her. I think if one can have hope then one must.
ROOM: You’re completely right on the notion of hope which I found really flowed through Pedal. With Lark’s rapid movements through her friendship with Julia and Smirks, she seems like both an aloof friend but also one that is deep within her devotion to her relationships and within her actions there is a kind of hope. However, in no one more did I find hope than in Smirks. He is both private and open and while he is trying to find his way like Lark and Julia, he seems to know his path much better than the others. How did you approach Smirks’s character when writing? I found I came to fall in love with him like Julia. Did you want to illicit this feeling in the reader?
As Smirks is such a complex character (and some could argue controversial) did you find that the character created himself or was he a map you could already see?
CR: Ahhh, another fabulous question!
You are dead on when you say that Smirks has more hope than anyone else in the book. I think that is because he has experienced more adversity. To a casual observer, Smirks is the most privileged example of a human—a handsome white male afforded all the advantages of an upper middle class upbringing. In today’s political climate I think that not having hope is a sign of intense privilege. I’ve heard arguments that hope is dangerous because it is passive, empty, or reductive. Not the kind of hope I know! My mother, years deep in an abusive relationship, dragged her children across the country because she hoped it would result in her violent husband leaving her. It did. Hope is badass as hell. Smirks is badass too. His only hope is to never cause harm, and every action he takes commits himself to that goal. Because he was by far the most difficult character to write, I kept two qualities in mind every second I wrote him: his humanity and his goodness.
ROOM: Hope really is badass as hell and I think that in arenas like this increasingly dystopian world we are living in, hope is really the most badass thing any of us can do. In Smirks, his hope literally takes him across the country in the hopes of helping Julia find what she is looking for. His humanity and goodness while truly evident to the reader also allow for him to hide his hopes for himself, something I found the reader didn’t truly understand until the end. For me, both Julia and Smirks seemed to have the same end goal but they both got to their destinations in different ways (both in the literal sense and in the figurative sense). We see Julia come to a breathless realization about herself once she reaches her unintended (so she wants you to believe) destination but the reader is left wondering a bit for Smirks. Do you think he ultimately came to his wanted destination or perhaps does he still have an incomplete journey waiting to be finished?
CR: Ah, the question of what happens to Smirks. Maybe I’ll reveal myself to be a hypocrite here but unfortunately my hope for Smirks does run out. I think that folks who must deny an integral part of their identity have a difficult time being in the world.
Nav Nagra is a member of Room's editorial board. She was the assistant editor for issue 40.2, and edited issue 40.3.